The art scene in Santa Barbara boasts a wide array of media and genres from creators ranging from talented enthusiasts to world-class professionals. But more importantly, this community is planting seeds in schools across town and carefully cultivating the next generation of artists.
Spring has sprung, and high school theater practitioners are blooming under the guidance of educators such as Dana Caldwell, Otto Layman, Shannon Saleh, and Clark Sayre. Don’t sleep on the area’s high school spring musicals: These productions feature professional-level design in beautiful venues, giving young performers the experience of treading the boards in a working theater. These teens are talented and dedicated, and many go on to continue their work in art after graduation.
West Side Story
This spring’s musicals include classics and new favorites, and the educators helming the ships are using these pieces to start conversations about social issues within the context of theatrical presentation. Dos Pueblos High School presents the enduring favorite West Side Story, a Romeo and Juliet tale in mid-century New York. Maria is a young Puerto Rican woman who falls in love with Tony, who’s white. Beyond young love, the story highlights racial prejudice and gang violence — social ills we still contend with today. Director Clark Sayre chose this piece for its “amazing potency and relevance for our world today, dealing with our nation’s hot-button issues, like immigration, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the March for Our Lives. West Side Story doesn’t tell us how we need to feel about these issues, it presents them in a way that we can draw our own conclusions,” he said.
Sayre’s hope is that this piece, which portrays a population divided, can bring some sense of reconciliation and awareness to our area population, similarly divided along racial lines. “I feel a connection to this story because, as a Chicano, my people have fought to be known like everyone else in the U.S., and to be welcome,” said student actor David Aguirre. “West Side Story shows that we Hispanics want to be in this country … a lot of us are willing to do whatever it takes to create a life here for ourselves and our families.”
Dos Pueblos High School presents West Side Story April 12 at 7 p.m. and April 13 at 2 and 7 p.m. See dptheatrecompany.org.
Once Upon a Mattress
At Laguna Blanca, director Dana Caldwell and her student actors are producing another classic: Once Upon a Mattress, the quirky musical take on The Princess and the Pea. Laguna Blanca is in its second year of partnership with Ensemble Theatre Company, so these students get personal mentorship from area professionals. While West Side Story tackles serious social issues, Once Upon a Mattress offers an equally important, albeit lighter, life lesson. “Life is too short to take too seriously all the time!” said Caldwell. Beau Glazier, who will be portraying the wacky Princess Winnifred, offers a profound take on the importance of this show’s comedic characters. “This musical is about accepting our individual quirks, which each of the characters, especially Princess Winnifred, does,” Glazier said. “I love this eclectic cast of characters because they remind us that if you are brash and loud, or quiet and shy, you are still lovable.”
This comedic take on a childhood favorite brings raucous royal shenanigans to the Spaulding Theater, which is being transformed into a castle to set the scene for fairy-tale frolic. Watch for what Caldwell calls the most intimidating challenge of creating this show: “That darn mattress!”
Laguna Blanca presents Once Upon a Mattress May 2-4 at 7 p.m. See lagunablanca.org/arts/upcoming-productions.
Catch Me If You Can
San Marcos and Santa Barbara high schools are producing newer musicals — Catch Me If You Can and Matilda, respectively. Shannon Saleh, who previously ran the Outburst youth theater program, is in her first year at San Marcos and wanted to produce a big ensemble show with “pizzazz.” “Catch Me if You Can features some very sassy numbers involving nurses and stewardesses,” said Saleh. “Although it is staged in the 1960s and uses some of the stereotypical gender roles of that time period, we are changing up some of the roles to modernize the show.” Saleh has focused the students toward learning about the changing gender-based social norms of the last 60 years in their character preparation. “I hope my students learn about the progress we have made as women in society, in terms of respect, power, and personal freedom, but also in concrete areas like job availability.” Indeed, this generation of female students knows that nurses and stewardesses aren’t the steel beams holding up the glass ceiling.
Based on the popular film, which was based on the almost-unbelievable true story of a brilliant conman playing cat and mouse with the FBI, Catch Me If You Can tells of a man with skill and charm who finds success as a high-end grifter. Student performer Eva Moschitto describes the show as being about a teenager who gets lost in a world of crime and family turmoil — certainly a relatable concept to a young cast. Summed up by student actor Jack Boyd, Catch Me If You Can is a show about “a real family dynamic, one in all its imperfect glory.” Said Boyd: “Being able to show an audience through high-powered [musical] numbers that everything is not the black-and-white we expect it to be, but rather a wash of Technicolor, is simply wonderful.”
San Marcos High School presents Catch Me If You Can May 2-3 and 9-11 at 7 p.m. and May 4 at 2 and 7 p.m. See smhstheaterdept.com.
Santa Barbara High School’s Otto Layman has wanted to produce Matilda with his students since he saw the show in London several years back. Layman calls this new musical, based on Roald Dahl’s classic book, a show with “crazy comic energy, and a lot of great roles, especially for women. … It’s a musical that casts children, and the act of reading, as heroic, and with humor and magic sees them victorious over authoritarians, bullies, and oppressors.”
Matilda is a brilliant child of proudly anti-education, con-artist parents. She finds joy in books but lives in a world of tyranny from the adults in her life — until she discovers a secret skill that lets her take control and bring order to her world. Said freshman performer Bridget DeVine, “I think most kids want education to be meaningful. They want to know why we do the things we are asked to do. We don’t want the teachers who can’t answer that question, or the ‘Trunchbulls’ who think education is meant to break the spirit of a child.”
With an incredible moving set made from books, alphabet building blocks, and giant Scrabble tiles, the stage is a temple to the written word. Bella Holland, a senior performer, said “Matilda, to me, shows what we do best at SBHS … the shows here are actor-centered, and we are allowed — encouraged! — to create and invent.” Layman wants Matilda to connect with students and audiences alike, to remind everyone that reading is a political act. “Be brisk and bold and brilliant,” he said. “Resist. Rise up. We are rebellious children.” Live theater is dangerous magic, he said, and actors are the magicians.
Santa Barbara High School presents Matilda May 3-4 and 10-11 at 7 p.m., May 9 at 10 a.m., and May 11-12 at 2 p.m. See sbhstheatre.com.